Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sour cream for a Russian is what tomato sauce is for an Italian. We eat our blintzes with sour cream. We toss spoonfuls into soups – be it borscht, mushroom, or uha, a fish consommé. We add it as a condiment to our salads – if you’re out of mayonnaise you can’t go wrong with sour cream. We dip our meat, potato, or cherry dumplings in it. Boiled potatoes accompanied by a small bowl of sour cream always made an easy supper in my family. It was quick to make yet produced no complaints even from the most fastidious eaters. And to this day, my mother plops a little white glob onto every potato latke she shakes off her pan – even though I think latkes are so good they don’t need an accompaniment. Hey, my father spreads sour cream on bread instead of butter. I used to do it too. Nothing better than a silky smooth smear of smetana.

Smetana is a rich in fat, a dairy product made by fermenting regular cream with certain kinds of lactic acid bacteria. The bacterial culture, introduced either deliberately or naturally, sours or thickens the cream. In English, the name comes from the production of lactic acid by bacterial fermentation, which is called souring. In Russian, it derives from the words smetat or metat, meaning to shake or to whip. In either case, the taste of sour cream is only mildly sour; if it tastes very sour, your smetana is bad.

In Russia, you can buy a glass or half a glass of smetana for lunch, and, depending on what variety you end up with, either drink it or eat it with a spoon. Or pour it over your stuffed cabbage dish. I have been to restaurants where pelmeni came with sour cream and vinegar. I have seen recipes in which herring was served with sour cream and horseradish. The famous Beef Stroganoff is beef cooked in sour cream, and so is mushroom stew. One of my absolute favorites, a winter salad made of potatoes, carrots, pickles, minced meat, and eggs, is best with a sour cream dressing rather than mayo. Years ago when I was into baking, my top number was a six-layered cake with cream made from smetana, honey, and walnuts.

Russian sour cream differs in its taste and consistency from its American cousin. Less starchy and often more liquidy, it is in some ways akin to American yogurt. It is smoother, creamier, and definitely fatter than any Breakstone or Friendship brands. While commercially produced American sour cream often contains extra thickening agents such as gelatin, rennin, or guar, the traditional Russian smetana-making techniques frown upon the “weird and unnatural” additives. Neither do Russians believe in low-fat or fat-free sour cream. Smetana is simply too good and life is too short to count the calories. Therefore, whenever I end up on Brighton Beach, the famous Russian enclave of New York City, the real smetana – thick, rich, and incredibly smooth, is definitely one of the treats I bring back. And, while most members of my American family prefer to eat their French crepes with whipped cream and Nutella, I smother mine in smetana. Old habits never die – and why should they!

And what about you? Do you have a favorite, irreplaceable ethnic ingredient?


  1. Sounds delicious! I want some smetana now. :)

  2. My favorite ethnic ingredient is saffron. And I'm a bit of a saffron snob, I'm afraid. Spanish saffron just won't do it for me. It has to be Iranian. I stock up whenever I am in Iran and ask people to bring me some from there when I start to run out.

    Lina, the smetana sounds delicious. No wonder you put it on everything. :)

  3. What a delicious post about one of my very favorite foods. I slather sour cream on just about everything as well.

  4. Is there anyway to purchase real smetana in America? Can't find it online anywhere. My son lived in Ukraine for 2 years and when we visited Russia and Ukraine we fell in love with smetana! Help please if there is a way to get it here!